I’d not previously visited South America so everything in this final stage of my round the world tour was a new experience.
Having crossed the dateline, we arrived in Santiago in Chile four hours earlier on the day we had set off from Auckland – a strange feeling. The jet lag took a couple of days to overcome. Only then could I start to appreciate this great continent.
My tour of New Zealand North Island had involved many days driving through the scenic countryside in a hire car. South America was going to be different, just a quick sampler of three countries – although in the end it turned out to be four countries – without any driving on my part.
I spent four days in Chile, which was just enough time to see the capital, Santiago, and also the two coastal cities of Valparaíso and Vina del Mar.
The flight over the Andes from Santiago to Buenos Aires was quite spectacular, but I couldn’t help thinking about the film ‘Alive’ as we travelled over hundreds of miles of mountainous wilderness.
My four days in Argentina were mainly spent in viewing the sites of the capital Buenos Aires. One day was spent in Colonia de Sacramento in Uruguay, just across the River Plate.
Finally to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and a few days spent visiting the beaches, gardens and monuments in this lively city.
My Highlights in South America
There was much to see and do in all the places I visited in South America; these are just a few of my most memorable highlights.
1. San Cristobal Hill (Cerro San Cristóbal) with FunicuIar and, maybe, Cable Car. We travelled up this 1000 ft peak by Cable Car and the views were incredible. However my wife was very concerned at the condition of both the cables and the cars. Probably rightly so, as the cable car closed down later that year and, as far as I can make out, has not yet reopened. As an alternative you can take the Funicular for about £2 return or, if feeling fit, you can always walk up.
An attractive, white 50 ft high statue of the Virgen de la Inmaculada Concepción adorns the top, but the main reason most people visit is to take in the commanding views of the city.
2. Barrio Bellavista. Having taken the Funicular down Cristobal Hill, we then wondered through the colourful Bohemian district of Barrio Bellavista, with its boutiques, galleries and pavement restaurants.
3. Plaza de Armas, the capital’s main square. This is the site of the 18th Century Metropolitan Cathedral and the fine Post Office building. It’s a popular meeting place and there seemed to be some sort of open air chess tournament taking place when we visited. Close by is the bustling, traditional Central Market (Mercado Central).
4. Valparaíso. The journey from Santiago to this coastal city passed through miles and miles of vineyards. At one stage we had to pull off the road to allow a procession of cars to speed by – much to our surprise the first car contained Charles and Camilla!
Unfortunately half of Valparaíso had been cordoned off because of these royal visitors, but we could still enjoy the steep, twisty roads with brightly coloured houses and the ancient funiculars creaking down to the port area.
5. Viña del Mar, Chile’s number one seaside city. Just five miles north of the busy port of Valparaíso are the long stretches of white sandy beaches of this internationally famous resort. There are some fine restaurants serving not just high quality seafood but a wide range of international cuisine.
Argentina (and Uruguay)
1. Plaza de Mayo and Casa Rosada. Anyone with any interest in Argentina’s recent history will be drawn to the Plaza de Mayo and the Casa Rosada, the pink administrative building where Eva Peron addressed the nation.
The Plaza is where the Mothers of the ‘disappeared children’ held a 30 year vigil. The day I visited, a demonstration was taking place relating to the Malvinas. Very thought-provoking.
2. Recoleta District. This classy area of the capital has fine colonial buildings, tree-lined avenues, markets and restaurants. The cemetery contains Eva Peron’s tomb along with more than 4,500 other vaults, some highly decorated. Be warned, someone attempted to mug my wife when we were walking near the cemetery!
3. La Boca District. At almost the other end of the spectrum from Recoleta, is the tough, working class district of La Boca. Visit to see the brightly coloured houses built with cast-off ship building materials and, if you are a soccer fan, the La Boca Juniors football stadium.
I enjoyed having a drink at one of the open air bars, watching locals showing their tango dancing prowess. And nobody tried to mug us there!
4. Gala Tango Show. Well you can’t visit Buenos Aires without going to a tango show and I think this is probably the best. It was booked for us by my son as a birthday surprise and everything about it was excellent: the dinner, including top quality Argentine beef, accompanied by a fine Malbec wine, the singing and, best of all, the tango dancing.
5. Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay. A short ride on the Buquebus fast ferry across the River Plate brings you to this charming, old colonial town – a UNESCO heritage site.
More details about Colonia del Sacramento are posted in the Off the Beaten Track section of this site.
1. Beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema. I spent a very pleasant, relaxed afternoon strolling along the lengths of these beaches and back. Yes the beautiful people are there, but they are very much outshone by the beauty of the beaches and blue ocean beyond. I bought a straw hat at Ipanema to shade my head. Whenever I wear it now, I am transported back to that sunny, palm-fringed beach.
2. Christ the Redeemer and the Tram ride. I made the mistake of taking an organised coach tour which took us up to this iconic statue. It would have been far more pleasant to take the 20 minute tram journey snaking through the Tijuca forest. But whatever way you choose to travel, you can’t help but be impressed by the superb views at the top, even when slightly misty, as when I visited.
3. Sugarloaf Mountain. Often world famous tourist attractions can be disappointing when visited, but not Sugarloaf Mountain. As we travelled up the two cable car rides to the top, my wife kept reminding me of the Bond character, Jaws, who chewed through the cables! And indeed the ride can be a bit hairy.
4. Jardim Botânico de Rio de Janeiro. This peaceful tropical garden has a great collection of plants, including an avenue of tall royal palms, and views of Christ the Redeemer statue. It is one of my Top Ten Gardens of the world.
5. Cathedral of St. Sebastian of Rio de Janeiro. It is a rather ugly concrete cone shape from the outside, which reminded me of the Liverpool Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral. However the inside is illuminated by four massive stained glass windows, running from floor to ceiling, forming a cross at the top. Quite awe-inspiring.
What I don’t include in my highlights of Rio De Janeiro is the artificial street used to view the Carnival. That was disappointing. I had always thought the Carnival snaked through the real streets of the city, as does the Notting Hill Carnival.
The big international hotel chains are well represented in the South American cities I visited. In Santiago I stayed at the Airport Holiday Inn, with Senior Discount of course. In Buenos Aires I stayed at a central Accor Ibis Hotel, only to be woken at 3 am when a water pipe fractured and drenched the hotel rooms! I’ve included my accommodation in Rio de Janeiro in the excellent Windsor Asturias Hotel in my list of Top Ten Favourite Hotels.
South America lived up to its billing, as being vibrant and colourful whilst at the same time being a little bit wild and sometimes almost menacing.
As a Senior Traveller you shouldn’t expect any special discounts, unless you are South American. You should also be aware that muggings are common in tourist haunts and should take sensible precautions.
Next stop after Rio was London Heathrow and back to reality and the end of my Round the World in 50 Days tour. And the overall feeling at the end of it? When am I going again?
Well the answer turned out to be five years later and my Round the World in 30 Days tour, Watch out for my reports on this new circumnavigation.